Democracy’s art of washing feet

Since its elections nearly two weeks ago, Spain has been stalled. The two main parties each fell just short of a majority in parliament, which one or the other needs to form a new government. But buried in the ballot’s footnotes is a lesson for countries striving to heal the sharp divisions of political grievance.

The region of Catalonia in Spain’s northeastern corner has a long history of secessionist discontent. Six years ago, it held a referendum to break away. The Spanish government responded with police force that human rights watchdogs called excessive. Lately, however, Madrid has struck a more conciliatory tone. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pardoned nine separatist leaders in 2021 in what he called a “constitutional spirit of forgiveness.” In January, he signed a law striking sedition – the crime for which the nine were imprisoned – from Spain’s penal code.

Those gestures help to explain one outcome in the recent election. “Catalan national parties performed rather poorly in this election,” noted Carlota Encina, a Europe expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, while “the very respectable voter turnout, over 70 percent, above the EU average, suggests that Spaniards have considerable faith in their representative institutions.”